China, Japan Seek Better Ties After Years of Tensions

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - Setting aside deep historical differences and years of strained ties, China and Japan have signed an agreement pledging to boost relations in the coming years.

The joint statement was signed by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is on a first official visit to Japan by a Chinese leader in a decade.

Among other things, the two agreed on mutual visits by leaders at least once a year. Hu declared bilateral ties to be at a "new starting point."

"China and Japan have no other way but to take the path of peace, friendship and cooperation as neighbors and countries with significant influence [in] Asia and the world," the Chinese leader said at a joint press conference.

The statement said the two countries resolved to "squarely face history and move toward the future" - but made no specific reference to past issues that have sparked resentment and tensions, arising out of Imperial Japan's military aggression last century.

(When President Jiang Zemin visited Japan in 1998, the two sides wrangled over language before settling on a statement in which Japan expressed "deep remorse" and said it was responsible "for inflicting grave suffering and damage" during its 1931-1945 military occupation of parts of China.)

The warmth accompanying Hu's five-day visit is in stark contrast to the situation just three years ago, when Chinese protestors were attacking Japanese targets in China and Beijing was doing its best to block Tokyo's bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat.

China that year said its ties with Japan were at their lowest ebb in three decades.

The protests in China were sparked by the appearance of Japanese school textbooks which critics said downplayed past atrocities, and lingering anger over visits by Japanese leaders to a shrine to Japan's war dead. Because a small number of war criminals are also interred at the Yasukuni shrine, it is viewed by neighboring Asian countries as a symbol of Japanese militarism.

But more recent grievances added to the soured ties. They included territorial disputes over natural gas-rich islands in the East China Sea, and Japan's move - encouraged by Washington - towards a more assertive foreign policy posture in the region and beyond, including a renewed push to join the Security Council.

After 9/11, Japan sent ships to refuel coalition warships involved in war on terror operations and later deployed non-combat troops to help rehabilitation efforts in Iraq. The initiatives required the passage of special laws, because Japan's post-World War II constitution renounces the use of force to settle international disputes.

Conservative former prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe were both keen to amend the constitution to remove the pacifist elements, a move that troubles China and other Asian neighbors. However the campaign has tailed off since Fukuda, widely viewed as a "moderate," took office last September.

A different approach to regional issues taken by Fukuda is one reason analysts give for an improvement in ties with China. Others include his pledge never to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine, unlike Koizumi who did so every year.

The economic relationship is also increasingly important to both countries. China last January became the biggest destination for Japanese exports for the first time, and earlier replaced the U.S. as Japan's biggest trading partner. Japan in 2007 was China's third-largest trading partner, after the European Union and the U.S.

As relations improve, areas of potential ongoing dispute between the two countries include rival claims to gas deposits in the East China Sea, in an area Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone. Fukuda did say this week that the two sides had "made significant progress" in discussions on the issue.

Another sensitive area is Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing regards as a rebellious province. In 2005, China protested strongly when a U.S.-Japan security document stated that easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait was one of the two allies' "common strategic objectives."

It was the first time Taiwan had featured in such a document, and Beijing interpreted it as a suggestion that Japan could support the U.S. in any future military conflict over the island.

This week's joint statement made little reference to Taiwan, although Japan did confirm that it would maintain its position, first set out to China in a 1972 communique, that Tokyo "understands and respects" China's claim to the island.

One issue that does not appear to pose any short-term risk to warming relations is that of changing the Japanese constitution.

Prof. Aurelia George Mulgan, a specialist on Japan at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the constitution amendment drive was "on the back-burner for the foreseeable future."

Although conservatives in Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party were trying to maintain the momentum, she said, the campaign "has become more politically difficult than ever."

A key problem was a lack of proactive leadership, George Mulgan said, describing Fukuda as a prime minister "without a policy agenda," who was not helped by the presence in parliament of an opposition determined to use any issue available to force a general election.

An opinion poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper last month showed that public support for amending the constitution has been dropping. For the first time since 1993, a plurality of respondents supported retaining the pacifist clauses, said the paper, which has been surveying the issue since the 1980s.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow